The New England Patriots cruised to a 34-16 win over the Houston Texans in the divisional round despite some sloppy play, but the team will face a much greater challenge Sunday when it hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.
Tom Brady was not his sharpest, as he matched his regular-season interception total with a pair of picks against the Texans. Since the Steelers boast arguably the NFL's most explosive offense, Brady will need to rebound for the Patriots to make their sixth straight conference title game a success.
Let's take a look at the schedule for Sunday's tilt, as well as the odds and a breakdown of this battle for a trip to the Super Bowl.
|2017 AFC Championship Schedule, Odds|
|Date||Location||Start Time (ET)||Network||Spread|
|Sunday||Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts||6:40 p.m.||CBS||New England (-5.5)|
New England prevailed 27-16 when these teams met in the regular season in Week 7, but Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger because of a knee injury. The Steelers still outgained the Patriots 375-362 in total yards, as Brady failed to create much downfield, recording just 222 passing yards.
Sunday's game looks like it will be even more competitive with Roethlisberger back at full strength, and Pittsburgh has improved defensively. The New England loss was the second in a four-game losing streak for the Steelers, but they have allowed more than 25 points just once since their last loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10. Pittsburgh finished the season strong to rank 12th in the NFL in total defense.
That is a positive sign for the Steelers, who have allowed just 28 combined points in their two playoff wins. This team is sensational on offense, as Roethlisberger has a wealth of passing options, which creates space all over the field.
Le'Veon Bell is also one of the league's elite running backs, and he is on an absolute tear this postseason, per NFL on CBS:
New England will focus on shutting down Bell in an effort to take away Pittsburgh's offensive balance. The Patriots finished the regular season as the league's third-ranked rushing defense, and Bell totaled a pedestrian 81 yards on 21 carries in the previous meeting.
This could put the New England defensive backs in one-on-one coverage without much safety help. That means containing Antonio Brown in space, which is a tremendous challenge. Brown, who caught 106 passes this season, was solid in Week 7 against the Patriots, who did a fine job of guarding the league's top receivers during the regular season:
|Patriots vs. NFL Top Receivers in 2016 Regular Season|
|DeAndre Hopkins||Houston Texans||4||56||0|
|A.J. Green||Cincinnati Bengals||6||88||0|
|Antonio Brown||Pittsburgh Steelers||7||106||0|
|Demaryius Thomas||Denver Broncos||7||91||0|
DeAndre Hopkins caught six passes for 65 yards on Saturday, but he suffered from poor quarterback play, unlike Brown.
Even with its fantastic offense, Pittsburgh will need to slow down Brady to have any chance at advancing to the Super Bowl.
The key to doing that in recent seasons has been creating pressure to make Brady uncomfortable. The Patriots usually struggle against big, athletic front sevens that can rush the quarterback. Here are Brady's numbers in his losses over the last two years (minus the 2015 season finale against Miami), with the common denominator being teams that can get after the quarterback:
|Brady in Notable Losses Since 2015|
|Date||Opponent||Score||Completion Percentage||Yards||Touchdowns||Interceptions||Sacks Taken|
|Nov. 29, 2015||Denver Broncos||30-24 (OT)||54.8||280||3||0||3|
|Dec. 6, 2015||Philadelphia Eagles||35-28||51.8||312||3||2||4|
|Dec. 27, 2015||New York Jets||26-20 (OT)||71.0||231||1||1||2|
|Jan. 24, 2016||Denver Broncos||20-18||48.2||310||1||2||4|
|Nov. 13, 2016||Seattle Seahawks||31-24||71.9||316||0||1||2|
Even in Saturday's win, the Texans frustrated Brady. He completed less than 50 percent of his throws and was picked off twice.
Bud Dupree emerged as a formidable pass-rusher late in the season and in the playoffs for Pittsburgh, and James Harrison is still getting it done at age 38. These two guys will need big days, as Brady should have no problem dissecting a young secondary that finished 24th in opposing completion percentage and 16th in passing yards allowed.
Third down will also be a key for both teams, given that both defenses will want to limit the number of snaps for the opposing offenses. New England excelled in this situation, ranking fourth offensively with a 45.8 percent success rate while holding opponents to a 36.9 percent clip.
Pittsburgh converted on 41.1 percent of its third downs, good for 12th in the league. The team was not strong defensively, allowing opponents to convert at the same rate, which ranked 23rd.
This matchup is almost too close to call. Both teams can score points in bunches, and each has playoff experience throughout its roster, starting at quarterback. However, Roethlisberger struggled away from Heinz Field this season, as Sports Illustrated's Greg A. Bedard noted:
Roethlisberger was fine against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, and the playoffs present much different circumstances than the regular season. Yet these minor nuances could have impacts in such a close game.
The Steelers have a higher ceiling due to their dynamic offense, but their performance volatility makes them harder to bank on compared to the Patriots' consistency. Expect New England to make fewer mistakes and move on to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: New England 27, Pittsburgh 24